A trial court is not bound by a stipulation that a petitioner is entitled to resentencing for murder under 1172.6

People v. Machado (Cal. Ct. App., Oct. 31, 2022, No. B311023) 2022 WL 16548693

Summary: Machado,  serving sentence for murder petitioned under Penal Code section 1172.6 which limited the  application of felony-murder doctrine. Machado and the prosecution stipulated that he was eligible to have the conviction vacated and to be resentenced. The Superior Court denied the petition. Machado appealed.

Holdings: The Court of Appeal held that: as a matter of first impression, a trial court is not required to accept parties’ stipulation that a prisoner is eligible for resentencing for murder, and the trial court did not violate constitutional separation of powers by declining to accept parties’ stipulation.

Resentencing under Penal Code section 1172.6

Penal Code section 1172.6 provides that when the prosecution agrees that the defendant who filed a petition for resentencing is entitled to relief, “[t]he parties may waive a resentencing hearing and stipulate that the petitioner is eligible to have the murder … conviction vacated and to be resentenced.” (§ 1172.6, subd. (d)(2).) The issue in this case is whether the trial court is bound by the parties’ stipulation, or whether it must review the record to determine whether the defendant is  entitled to resentencing.

Here, the trial court denied Machado’s petition despite the parties’ stipulation to waive the resentencing hearing. Machado contends the court misinterpreted the statute and violated the doctrine of separation of powers. The Court of Appeal disagreed and affirmed.

A core judicial function is to “declare the law as it is, and not as either appellant or respondent may assume it to be.” (Bradley v. Clarke (1901) 133 Cal. 196.) Although the court must consider the parties’ stipulation the court must make its own determination of whether the matter to which the parties have stipulated is consistent with the law. That is especially true in criminal cases, where the public interest is at stake.The Court also reject Machado’s contention that the trial court erred by considering the facts as described in the opinion in his original appeal because even assuming any such error, Machado has failed to demonstrate prejudice.

Resentencing Proceedings

In 2018, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill No. 1437 which abolished the natural and probable consequences doctrine in cases of murder and limited the application of the felony-murder doctrine. (See People v. Gentile (2020) 10 Cal.5th 830, 842-843.) Under the new law, to be convicted of felony murder, a defendant must have been the actual killer; or acted with the intent to kill in aiding, abetting, or soliciting the murder; or have been “a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.”  The legislation also enacted section 1170.95, subsequently renumbered section 1172.6, which established a procedure for vacating murder convictions for defendants who could no longer be convicted of murder because of the changes in the law and resentencing those who were so convicted.

Machado filed a petition for resentencing under section 1170.95 on December 27, 2018. The People filed an opposition, in which they alleged Machado was not entitled to relief because there was evidence showing he was the actual killer, and he was a major participant in the underlying felony, and further, that he acted with reckless indifference to human life.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Policy on Resentencing Petitions

On December 7, 2020, the Los Angeles County District Attorney issued a special directive in handling resentencing petitions mandating that in all cases where a defendant was charged with a felony-murder special circumstance, but the defendant was not the actual killer and the special-circumstance allegation was dropped as part of plea negotiations, “this [o]ffice will not attempt to prove the individual is ineligible for resentencing. This [o]ffice will stipulate to eligibility per [former] section 1170.95.)” The People informed the court that in light of the new sentencing directives, they would not be contesting Machado’s eligibility for resentencing, and stipulated to his eligibility.

After hearing argument by counsel, the court declined to grant Machado’s petition for resentencing on the basis of the stipulation alone. Instead, the court stated that it “has a duty to review whether the court accepts the stipulation or not. … [A]nd I take no position on what the [district attorney]’s policy is. That’s up to the [district attorney]. But, ultimately, it’s a ruling by the court. And since we have a record of conviction, I think it’s incumbent upon the court to consider it and consider the case law and then make a determination.”

The trial court took judicial notice of the record of conviction, including  the Court of Appeal opinion, the minutes of the plea and sentencing hearings, and the abstract of judgment.

The court concluded Machado was ineligible for resentencing “because he could be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of first degree murder under amended section 189 as a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to human life in the commission of the felony murder.”

The Stipulation Did Not Bind the Trial Court to Vacating Machado’s Conviction

The plain language of section 1172.6, subdivision (d)(2) does not dictate that the court must vacate the defendant’s sentence in all cases where the parties so stipulate. “If there was a prior finding by a court or jury that the petitioner did not act with reckless indifference to human life or was not a major participant in the felony, the court shall vacate the petitioner’s conviction and resentence the petitioner.” (§ 1172.6, subd. (d)(2)). Because the statute states that when the condition is met, the court “shall vacate” the conviction, cases that have considered the question have held unanimously that a prior finding of no reckless indifference to human life or major participation indeed requires the court to vacate the defendant’s conviction.

The first sentence of section 1172.6, subdivision (d)(2), however, contains no such mandatory language, providing merely that “[t]he parties may waive a resentencing hearing and stipulate that the [defendant] is eligible … to be resentenced.” Nothing in the text of the statute requires the court to accede to the parties’ request.

Courts are not bound by the parties’ stipulations but must subject them to some form of review. If a district attorney enters a stipulation contrary to law, the stipulation is “not binding on the court.” (People v. Jones (1936) 6 Cal.2d 554.) The district attorney’s discretionary decision regarding whether to stipulate to a defendant’s eligibility is no substitute for the court’s determination of the issue.

The Trial Court Did Not Violate the Doctrine of Separation of Powers

The California Constitution establishes separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and “vest[s] each branch with certain ‘core’ [citation] or ‘essential’ [citation] functions that may not be usurped by another branch.”  “It is well settled that the prosecuting authorities, exercising executive functions, ordinarily have the sole discretion to determine whom to charge with public offenses and what charges to bring.” (People v. Birks (1998) 19 Cal.4th 108, 134.) Machado contends that the trial court violated this doctrine by essentially acting as prosecutor in this case, instituting and directing criminal charges against him. In doing so, he argues that the court committed judicial misconduct. The court did not institute charges, examine witnesses, or conduct an investigation into the facts. Instead, the court exercised the judicial function of examining the evidence already in the record to determine whether the law entitled Machado to the relief he sought. The determination of a sentence is a core judicial function.

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